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How Parents' Divorce Can Affect Their Adult Kids

Millennials' own lives and feelings deserve attention

Effects of Divorce on Adult Children


"All is fair in love and war."

En español | Difficulties in parents' relationships have an impact on their adult children, even those living on their own. The influence isn't always negative.

Parents who "try to resolve the conflict instead of carrying it around like baggage for three weeks" teach their children that no relationship is without struggles, says Christine R. Keeports, a Ph.D. psychology student at Northern Illinois University. "The kids are better off because they are also dealing with conflicts."

And it might also spare the kids increased levels of anxiety and depression that Keeports reported in her study "I Wish My Parents Would Stop Arguing!" published in the Journal of Family Issues.

Some conflicts, however, can't be resolved. The dramatic rise of "gray divorces" after two or more decades of marriage means more young adults face a changed family situation.

Millennial writer Jenny Kutner offered a revealing perspective on later-life divorces in What Nobody Tells You About Being an Adult Child of Divorce on the website Mic. From her own parents' divorce last year, after 25 years of marriage, she came to believe that all family members grieve a divorce, even if they don't show it, and do so differently. "The reason I was not outwardly upset was because it would have been utterly debilitating and I wouldn't have been able to do my job, which is something as an adult I have to do," she says.

While she understands the reasons for the divorce ("My parents' marriage didn't fail; it ended"), it has influenced her own views on marriage and relationships. "Marriage has never been a priority, and the divorce really solidified that for me having seen what happened," she says. "Lifelong monogamy is unrealistic in the world we live in."

Kutner foresees how her parents' divorce will subtly change her future life: few encounters with both parents at the same time and children, if she has her own, who will never know their maternal grandparents as a unit.

A major consequence of going through her parents' divorce was being pulled into the situation. She and her sister unwillingly became "adult confidants" who served as a sounding board for both parents and provided emotional support for them.

"It's really fraught because as their child you are grieving and dealing with your own emotions over the end of this relationship and the way it's going to reshape your family," she says.

Kutner cautions parents to respect the parent-child relationship. "There are boundaries that should be in place," she says. "Talk through those boundaries with your adult children and then don't cross them."

Mary W. Quigley, a journalist and author, has written two books about motherhood and work. An NYU journalism professor, she is the mother of three adult children and blogs at Mothering21.